The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel

Review By Angele Mott-Nickerson

 

Author Dava Sobel is a long-time science writer having published a number of other books and articles on science topics and the personalities involved in the scientific effort. Like her previous work, this recently released book is a good blend of the people who made the science possible as well as a grasp of the actual science itself. Sobel’s work roughly covers the years of 1885 through the 1940s at the Harvard Observatory when the focus was on photographing stellar spectra and analyzing results. The account focuses specifically on the women who worked in the observatory as “human computers.”

 

The ‘computers’ of 100 years ago painstakingly examined each of the glass plate photographs of the stars to astern their exact position and classify the resulting spectrum of light they discovered. In reading the book it was remarkable to realize how many aspects of astronomy we take for granted today arise from the work done at Harvard University only 100 years ago. The full sky catalogs, an understanding of variables, what the stars are made of, their distances, the nature of nova stars, star life cycles, and even the nature of the shape of the universe all can trace their origins through the photographs made by Harvard Observatory. It was the women themselves, the ‘computers,’ who were responsible for examining these photographs and answering many of the questions of astronomy.

 

Considering the many astronomers and their discoveries who passed through the Harvard Observatory during this 60-plus year period, Sobel’s work is well-written and easy to follow. She charts a course for not only grasping the significance of the work itself but for these women’s place within the scientific community. A long the way she exposes how unusual it was for the women to be given a significant place at the scientific table, why they needed to be there, and their struggles to be recognized in their chosen field. Overall however, the reader is simply left with a feeling of wonderment that so much knowledge came out of something as simple as photographs of the night sky.